Reminiscences of Sir Wemyss Reid
I am very grateful to Ralph Lake for bringing this interesting extract to my attention
Taken from Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid edited by Stuart Reid (London: Cassell & Co), 1905.
By-and-by, as I extended my connection with magazine work, I was brought into contact with Mrs. Riddell, the gifted writer of that admirable novel “George Geith,” and of other stories of equal merit. Mrs. Riddell was the editor and proprietor of the St. James’s Magazine, and I became a regular contributor to its pages. Here I was brought into intimate association with a phase of literary life which belongs rather to the past than to the present. Mrs. Riddell had achieved sudden fame by her brilliant stories. In these days such fame would have meant for her a handsome income and a recognised position in society. But forty years ago fame as a writer was not necessarily rewarded in this way. My first interview with Mrs. Riddell, who was a lady of delightful manners and charming appearance, took place literally in a cellar beneath a shop in Cheapside. The shop was her husband’s, and here certain patent stoves, of which he was the inventor and manufacturer, were exposed for sale. I had been greatly surprised when Mrs. Riddell, wishing to speak to me about certain contributions to the St. James’s Magazine, had asked me to call, not at the office in Essex Street, but at this shop in Cheapside. I was still more surprised on finding this gifted woman, in whose brilliant pages I had found so much to delight me, acting as her husband’s clerk, and engaged in making out invoices in the cellar beneath the shop.
I am afraid that, in spite of her husband’s occupation, I cannot give Mrs. Riddell a testimonial as a business woman. She was, as I have said, delightful as a writer, and charming as a woman, but her editorship of the St. James’s Magazine did not suggest that she had the aptitude necessary to success in business. She was very kind to me, and gave me the opportunity of writing on any subject, and at almost any length, in the pages she controlled. More than once I have had three long articles in one number of the magazine; but I was always harassed by the fact that the magazine was never “out” on the proper day, and that the editor was lways in a hurry for the copy I had to supply. My chief contributions to the St. James’s were a series of sketches of statesmen, subsequently republished in a volume, entitled “Cabinet Portraits,” another series of sketches of London preachers, and a novel called “The Lumley Entail.”
This novel was my first venture in fiction, and one curious incident, at least, was connected with it. I had submitted to Mrs. Riddell nothing more than the first two or three chapters, and a synopsis of the plot, when I offered it to her. With a courage that was undoubtedly rash, she accepted the story forthwith, and decided to begin its publication at once. I was very busy with my newspaper work at the time, and in consequence could only write my monthly instalment in bare time for its inclusion in the coming number of the magazine. One awful day, when the St. James’s for the current month was already overdue, I received a telegram from the publisher bidding me send in my instalment immediately, as they were waiting for it in order to go to press. I rushed to the office in a state of consternation, and explained to the man that I had duly sent in my manuscript more than a week before. “I know that,” he said quite coolly; “I got it myself, and gave it to Mrs. Riddell; but unfortunately she has lost it, so you will have to write it over again.” Here was a pretty dilemma for a budding novelist! I did not take “The Lumley Entail” so seriously as I should have done, and I had a very vague recollection of the contents of the lost instalment; but there was no help for it. I had to sit down there and then in the office in Essex Street, and write another instalment of equal length. It was altogether different from that which it was meant to replace, and I have no doubt that it changed materially the fortunes of the more or less human beings who figured in my tale. Such, however, was the fate of a young contributor in the hands of an unbusinesslike editor.
But, as I have said, Mrs. Riddell, apart from her imperfect observance of editorial customs, was a delightful woman. She and her husband lived in a rambling old house in the Green Lanes, Tottenham. Here she entertained many of the notable men of letters of her time, and here I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of not a few of them. The establishment was a somewhat primitive one. The workshop in which Mr. Riddell carried on the manufacture of his patent stoves was at the back of the house, and a rather large central hall, dividing the dining-room and the drawing-room, was used as a kind of show-room in which choice specimens of Mr. Riddell’s wares were displayed. The special feature of these patent stoves was that they were ornamental as well as useful. They were made to look like anything but what they were. One stove appeared in the guise of a table, richly ornamented in cast-iron; another was a vase; a third a structure like an altar, and so forth. But whatever their appearance might be, they all were stoves. One winter’s night, when there was an inch of snow on the ground, I went out to the Green Lanes to attend one of Mrs. Riddell’s literary parties. It was bitterly cold, and one of the stoves in the hall had been lighted for the comfort of the guests. We were a merry company, including, if I remember aright, George Augustus Sala, and some other well-known journalists. In the course of the evening Mrs. Riddell asked a well-known barrister, who at that time dabbled a little in literature, and who has since risen to fame and to a knighthood, to favour us with a song. He was an innocent young man in those days, and tried to excuse himself. “Now, Mr. C----,” said Mrs. Riddell, “I know you have brought some music with you, so you must get it and do as I wish.” The young man admitted that he had brought music, and blushingly retired to the hall in quest of it. Suddenly, those of us who were standing near the door heard a groan of anguish, and, looking out, we saw Mr. C---- holding in one hand the charred remains of a roll of music, and in the other the remnants of what had once been an excellent overcoat. He had laid his coat, when he arrived, on what was apparently a hall table. Unluckily for him, it happened to be the patent stove that had been lighted that evening to cheer and warm us when we escaped from the storm outside. I draw a veil over the subsequent proceedings.
I believe it was on this very evening that I heard Sala utter one of those jocosely brutal sentences for which he was celebrated. The literary men who frequented Mrs. Riddell’s house were not, I am sorry to say, so respectful to her husband as they might have been. They made it very clear, in fact, that it was the novelist and not the inventor of stoves whom they came to see, and they were impatient when the latter attempted to intrude his views upon them. A party of us were gathered in the dining-room, smoking and otherwise refreshing ourselves. We had been listening to story after story from some of the best talkers in the Bohemia of those days, and again and again the attempts of Mr. Riddell to contribute to our entertainment by some long-winded narration had been vigorously and successfully repulsed. At last the unhappy host found an opening, and had got so far as “What you were saying reminds me of an interesting anecdote I once heard,” when Sala, striking his fist upon the table, thundered a stentorian “Stop, sir!” Mr. Riddell looked at him, half frightened, half indignant. “If the story you propose to tell us,” continued Sala, “is an improper one, I wish to tell you that we have heard it already; and if it is not improper, we don’t want to hear it at all.” Yes, clearly one had wandered into Bohemia in those days.
The full text of The Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg
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